Archive for December, 2011

The End of Putin

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

MOSCOW – On the night of Monday, Dec. 5, blogger, anti-corruption activist, and budding politician Alexey Navalny was one of 500 people arrested at a protest denouncing fraud in the previous day’s parliamentary elections. Surrounded by some 6,000 people — an unheard-of number for a protest in the center of Moscow, a dozen years into the apathetic Putin era — Navalny had delivered an angry, guttural, less-than-diplomatic speech. “We will cut their throats!” he proclaimed, then tried to lead a march down the street to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the powerful successor to the KGB known by its Russian initials FSB. This had not been permitted in advance, so he was bundled up, stuffed into a police van, and shuttled around nighttime Moscow to keep his supporters from picketing his detention. The next day, he was given a 15-day sentence for disobeying police orders.

By the time Navalny came out in the early morning hours of December 21, he was received with a hero’s welcome. “I went to jail in one country and came out in another,” he told the cheering journalists and supporters who had braved a blizzard to catch a glimpse of him.

It was true: Russia had changed while Navalny was in jail. He had missed the huge rally on December 10 on Bolotnaya Square, when the numbers who came out in peaceful, euphoric protest — an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 — made the original demonstration at Chystie Prudy look like a civic sneeze. Navalny had missed Vladimir Putin’s stuttering, insulting response, and the energetic, often fractious and messy planning for the next protest, which took place — with Navalny front and center among the 100,000-plus who turned out — on Dec. 24.

It was particularly ironic that Navalny had missed the first mass demonstration in recent Russian political history.

Navalny has been in opposition politics for nearly a decade, but in the last two years, he has become the man to watch, becoming the first of his opposition colleagues to turn rhetoric and abstract principles into concrete action. First, Navalny (trained as a lawyer) started taking corrupt state corporations to court and blogging about it. Then he created a site called RosPil that crowdsourced the work of exposing questionable government deals. When he asked his supporters to donate money for the cause — and for hiring lawyers to work on the project — the Russian web responded, delivering double the amount he asked for. “People donating money is extremely significant, given Russians’ cynicism,” Aleh Tsyvinski, a Yale economist who has become a sort of mentor to Navalny, told me when I profiled Navalny for The New Yorker in the spring. “Writing to Navalny is, in some ways, a way of exercising power. He is tapping into a huge demand for a grassroots movement.”

In effect, Navalny trained a set of thousands of Russian Internet dwellers to do something concrete with their disaffection. And by the time the election season kicked off, in March, Navalny’s mantra of “vote, and vote for anyone but United Russia” found a deep resonance among his following, and quickly spread. His alternative title for Putin’s ruling United Russia party — the Party of Crooks and Thieves — became a sticky meme, with one-third of Russians now identifying the party in this way, just three months after the phrase flew out of Navalny’s mouth on a radio show.

So when the huge crowd gathered in Bolotnaya on Dec. 10, it was his crowd — a largely white-collar crowd, and the crowd that his campaign had driven first to vote (an unusual activity for this set), then to come out and protest. (When I asked him, a year ago, if he was scared, given the fates of previous dissidents like jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dead lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, in taking on the regime, Navalny trotted out his trademark pluck. “If tomorrow ten businessmen spoke up directly and openly, we’d live in a different country,” he said. “Starting tomorrow.”) The protest was a game-changer, and it was, to a large extent, the fruit of his political labors.

And yet, it was a crowd whose size and support he — and everyone else — had underestimated. Most of the people I spoke to at the protests have come to see Navalny as not only the most viable opposition politician, as well as the one most representative of their views. But there’s one big caveat: his nationalistic views. Navalny had joined the scarily nationalistic “Russian March” in November, alienating many in his core constituency of the urban bourgeois, who fear Russian skinheads — the most violent in Europe — almost as much as they worry about Putin’s plans to return to the presidency for another 12 years.

Now that he is out of prison and back in the game, what is his plan? How does he view the most recent Kremlin attempts at placating the street? How does he visualize his own political future? We spoke as the euphoria of December’s protests fades into exhaustion. “I hope to go somewhere for a week in January, and not have to answer emails,” he said. He paused and added, “Not that I’ve been answering them for the last three weeks anyway.”

What follows is a transcript of our conversation:

FP: What did you make of last Saturday’s record-breaking protest?

We were all worried because the 10th was an unprecedented event. It was an unprecedented, new reality so what we were all worried that it was just a one-off. In the last two days before the protest, though, everyone infected me with their optimism and confidence, and on Saturday it became clear that it’s not an accidental protest, that these people are upset and that they will continue to protest and demand what they want, and will get what they want. It became clear that they would come out a second time, a third time, and a fourth time.

You missed the last protest, on the 10th, because you were in jail. What did you hear about it?

They brought us a radio to our cell, and we heard that there was a group on Facebook [for this protest] and that 20,000 or 30,000 indicated they were coming. I have a popular blog and I know that you can get a ton of “likes,” but are they convertible into real attendance? That is the big question. So we were discussing whether there will be more people than at the rally on Dec. 5 when there were 6,000 people. But, honestly, I was very skeptical about the idea of 50,000. I guess I just underestimated it.

When you heard that 50,000 to 60,000 people came out, what was your reaction?

There were 18 of us in the jail cell, and out of those 18, 16 were political prisoners. And we were of course really happy to hear this. We felt our own involvement in this, and we knew that, to some extent, we were one of the reasons that people had come out. It was really cool. One guy in our cell, a soccer fan who had also been arrested, he said something I really liked: “It’s like a really great birthday party. You weren’t invited to it, but it’s still really nice to see.” That’s how we felt.

No one expected these numbers, but, in a way, you seem to have underestimated the size of your electorate.

What is my electorate? People who don’t like corruption? Everyone is my electorate because 95 percent of people strongly dislike corruption. But the question was, do they dislike it enough to come out with me and protest? These people aren’t serfs. I can’t take bring them out onto the square, or not bring them out. I can’t say, “Go here, do that.” I wasn’t the one who brought these people out to protest. The events of the last month are what brought them out. They are the crest of the wave, but the wave didn’t rise up because of them.

Why then?

Putin created the wave. Injustice, deceit, fraud, falsification created the wave. Of the approximately 75 people who got jail terms after being arrested on the 5th, almost all of them were volunteer election monitors. There were not very many political activists like me. Most of them were there completely by chance. One guy was a programmer, one was a film director, a soccer fan, a random teenager — people who had never in any way participated in politics or activism. But they come out on the 5th and marched because they were furious, because they had been kicked out of polling stations, because they saw the election protocols that gave United Russia 100 votes, but then saw that the official results were 500.

Putin’s main mistake was to pull this nonsense in Moscow. United Russia got 46 percent here, even though it got 32 percent in the Moscow region [which is rural and votes more readily for the ruling party]. In Yekaterinburg, United Russia got 25 percent. Of course, everyone expected that, in Moscow, they wouldn’t get more than 28 percent and then — bam! — 46 percent, and areas in the center populated by the intelligentsia were delivering 90 percent for United Russia.

When I asked people at the protests on the 10th and the 24th if there was a politician who reflected their views, most said “Navalny, but … ” because they were disturbed by your participation in this year’s nationalist Russian March, in November. Some saw this as a cynical attempt to widen your base. Have the December protests convinced you that your natural, white-collar base is big enough?

I didn’t go to the Russian March to find another base. I do what I do because I think it’s right. I am very grateful to the people who support me, but I’m not going to rule by poll results or focus groups. I have a set of views on what I need to say and do, and I will continue to say and do them regardless of whether my support is rising or falling. I’m not flirting with anyone, not liberals, not nationalists. I think my line on most things is sufficiently clear.

If you go into “big politics,” though, won’t you have to pay attention to polls and take your citizens’ views into account?

It’s one thing to listen to people’s opinions, and another to let your supporters manipulate you. I formulate my political positions by looking at polls, by taking into account the views and opinions of those who surround me every day. At the same time, I am a person just like these people and I want exactly the same things that they do. Mostly, though, you’re talking about political activists who are saying, Navalny should do this or that.

No, the people I spoke to were a random average, and they said, “I like Navalny, but his nationalism scares me.” How do you respond to them?

If there are still people who are made uncomfortable by my participation in the Russian March, or are scared of “Navalny with his nationalistic views,” that points only to a problem of clarity. That means I wasn’t able to clearly and correctly explain my views. Because every person with whom I am able to discuss this subject in depth, they agree that my views on this are correct, reasonable, and appropriate. So I guess I’ll just have to keep explaining.

Many thought your speech at the protest on Dec. 5 was very aggressive — “we will cut their throats” and so on — and it was very different from your speech on Dec. 24, which was much calmer. What changed?

Dec.5 was an angry, aggressive protest of a minority. Election observers were the core of this protest, which was and wasn’t officially permitted; they were completely surrounded by the police. They were in the minority, and they understood that they had lost. It was a lot of people, but it was still the protest of a minority, of the persecuted, the angry, of those who hate this regime. I was speaking to them. But when, on Dec. 10 and the 24, it became clear that “we” is actually everyone, then the rhetoric changed.

The questions people seem to come back to over and over again is: to what extent can one change the current system from within, and can one compromise with it? How do you answer these questions?

You can’t change this system from within. Its founding principles are corruption, hypocrisy, and cynicism. If you join this system, your main instruments become corruption, hypocrisy, and cynicism, and it’s impossible to build anything with such instruments. I have my own experience with trying to reform the system from within — I spent a year in Kirov [as an advisor to the Kirov governor] — and I’ve also seen the experience of other wonderful people, like [former finance minister] Aleksei Kudrin, who became part of the system instead of changing it.

People who talk about changing the system from within are lying. They’re trying to justify their own hypocritical position, to defend the fact that, as part of the system, they’re deriving material or political benefits from it.

So then what’s the plan? How do you change the system?

You can change the system using a tool invented by human civilization. This tool is called “democracy” and “free elections.” We need to have free elections. Then we need to participate in these elections and win, to show that our principles for building a government, unlike those of corruption and cynicism, are better.

The people who came out to protest in December, whom should they vote for in the presidential election on March 4?

I don’t know who they’ll vote for on March 4, and I don’t think it’s important. First of all, they need to vote against Putin. Second of all, there won’t be an election on March 4. It will be a throne inheritance procedure. Who people vote for is not important. We need to use this procedure to get another strike against the regime.

What results do you think we’ll see on March 5? Because Putin will probably win, and can win even without falsifying the vote. But then what?

We have to do what we did before: demand free elections, continue to develop protest activism, to press on the state until we get parliamentary elections in which anyone who wants to can participate, and to demand new presidential elections.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but Putin’s power is not based on elections but on his very real popularity. His popularity is based on the good deeds he did a long time ago, and on television. But he hasn’t done anything good in a long time. In fact, he’s done a lot of very bad things. We can use the television to tell everyone what we know on the Internet, to tell people about his horrible, disgusting, corrupt dealings. And that will be the end of him.

What do you think about the Kremlin’s proposal to reinstate gubernatorial elections?

They’ve obviously realized that they’ve reached a certain limit, and that there’s a very real danger that they will be booted from the Kremlin, so they’re trying to lower the pressure inside the political system by breaking down everything they’ve done in the last ten years. Right now, though, it smacks of deceit because there will still be ways to block candidates and parties from registering, to remove them from the ballot on technicalities. It’s a starting bargaining position.

What do you make of Putin’s reaction to the growing protests of the last month?

He’s trying to save face. If he betrays any confusion, his support will drop further. He’s in a situation where he can’t do anything to make his support grow. It will continue to decline; the only question is the pace of that drop. If they showed him on television holding his head and crying over the protests, his support would be evaporate overnight. But he’s not an idiot. His image is that of a tough guy, and he’s playing the tough guy to the last.

What do you make of [businessman Mikhail] Prokhorov’s candidacy for president?

It’s the Kremlin’s Trojan project. He’s absolutely not independent. He will not win the presidential elections. Nevertheless, his entry into politics is a good thing because any new people, any new political entities make the political system better by offering more choice, more competition. He’s fine. I have nothing against him.

You missed registering to participate in the 2012 presidential election because you were in jail. Did you want to participate?

Our goal is to have free elections. If we achieve this, if the 2012 presidential election is open to all those who want to participate, not just those who were invited and who negotiated the terms of their participation, if at this point, I have a level of support that gives me grounds to participate, I will, of course, participate.

And you want this?

Like any politician who is fighting for power, I want to fight for power in a real way and to get the kind of post that would allow me to change something.

The End of Putin [FP]

Putin: A Used President?

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

guess you can say that it started with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s live question-and-answer session last Friday. This is a once-a-year extravaganza that lasts for hours and is Putin’s favorite—that is, utterly scripted—way to communicate with his subjects. He leans back in an Aeron chair, cocks one arm over its back, and confidently rains down figures and percentages and questionable numbers like heavenly manna. He solves housing shortages for Second World War veterans with a swift, manly snarl. He jokes, he zings—he is, in short, in his element. This year, however, Putin’s telethon came amid growing protests by the country’s middle class, which has had enough, over the crude, ham-fisted falsifications of the December 4th parliamentary vote. This year, he was nervous, and, despite his vocal unwillingness to discuss this wrinkle in the system, he had to keep coming back to the topic. When all else failed, he tried to ease off the theme by making a joke about the white ribbons protesters have been pinning to their chests. “To be perfectly honest,” he said,

When I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest—it’s not quite appropriate— but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.

Within minutes, the Russian-language Internet was overflowing with condom jokes, including a picture of a condom folded up like an activist ribbon, and a Christmas card from Putin, an unfurled condom hanging from his lapel. A joke started to make the rounds: a guy and a girl are getting hot and heavy, and, at the critical moment, she says, “Do you have a white ribbon?”

Russians have a long tradition of biting, bitter humor, a necessary steam valve when you live in a reality that could easily be mistaken for a joke. These days, with all the steam the system has built up over a decade of High Putinism suddenly billowing forth, humor has been front and center. KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter parody of Dmitry Medvedev’s Twitter feed, has been especially active of late. “Putin,” one of the recent condom-themed tweets went, “is a used president.” (He had been President before, and intends to be so again.)

Saturday, up to a hundred and twenty thousand people came out to demand electoral reform—a record for the infamously indifferent Putin generation. Partly because the last massive protest, two weeks ago, was so peaceful, and because Muscovites are getting the hang of this, Saturday’s protest was, more than anything, a festival of such classically wry Russian witticisms. Below, some of my favorites.

(Photographs: Max Avdeev)

(Photographs, above and top: Julia Ioffe)

Putin: A Used President? [TNY]

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

MOSCOW – Going into today’s protest against the fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, it was unclear how many people would come. Would there be more people than the some 50,000 that gathered on Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10, in the election’s heady aftermath? Would there be less, given the holiday season, the dropping temperatures, and the distance — three weeks — from the insult of the election fraud that cemented the ruling United Russia party, however weakly, back into power? Would there be more, given the lack of a crackdown last time, when, it should be noted, no one knew how many would show up either? And even if there were more, what would it mean?

Crowd counting, especially from the ground level, is an inexact science at best, but it was clear to everyone — from police to journalists to the event organizers — that thousands more people came out today to Sakharov Avenue than did two weeks ago to Bolotnaya Square, which has become the new by-word for the still hard-to-pin spirit of change creeping through the Russian political system. The crowd — its estimates ranging from 30,000 to 120,000 — was also different from the protest of Dec. 10. If Bolotnaya was packed with the young and the white-collared (“office plankton,” as they’re known in Russia) today’s demonstrations brought out a more motley assembly.

Anarchists clustered by the gay activists, themselves within spitting distance from the radical young communists. Their elderly counterparts, with fur hats and voluminous, unkempt eyebrows (“You tell America,” one of them, an 83-year-old World War II veteran, said, looking at my press badge, “that Russia will never be its colony!”) were also nearby, flanked by the wry and rowdy hipsters from Leprozorium (“Leper Colony”), a closed and harshly meritocratic web forum famous for cultivating some of the Russian internet’s stickiest memes. Jumping up and down, they chanted “Fuck, you’re tall! Fuck, you’re tall!” at the 6-foot-8-inch Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest person in Russia and a newly minted opposition presidential candidate, whose head loomed over a scrum of people eager to ask him about orphanages, corruption, and Soviet history.

All around these islands was a sea of grandmothers, of the middle-aged, of the well-heeled, the more modestly compensated, and, of course, the office plankton. It was bitterly cold on Saturday afternoon in Moscow and, huddling under a steely sky flecked with white balloons, people drank whiskey from flasks and tea from thermoses; they jumped in place to keep warm. As on Bolotnaya, the speeches coming from the stage — though clearly audible because of speakers placed along the avenue — were almost of secondary importance. It wasn’t about the speakers, some of whom, like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, were booed; people talked politics among themselves, periodically stopping to join in the chanting of a slogan echoing from the stage.

And yet, despite the obviously bigger numbers than the protest earlier this month, many of the people I spoke to today didn’t sound like they were at the biggest display of civic upswell in 20 years. Gone was the euphoria, the ebullience, the anger. The people who came out to Sakharov Avenue were more muted than the crowds of Bolotnaya a fortnight before, and despite the friendliness in abundance — a rare sight when so many Muscovites cluster so closely together — there was a calmness and a quiet that Bolotnaya, its air crackling, did not have. Even the polite and peaceful police presence, such a novelty on Dec. 10, didn’t even merit a shrug.

At Bolotnaya, when everyone was surprised by the fact that so many thousands of other traditionally atomized Muscovites coalesced to voice their frustrations, there was something of a sense of elation, a delight in discovering that people who share the same frustration existed, and existed in such large and friendly numbers. In the two weeks since, however, a lot has happened. That surprise, that “now-now-now” euphoria, has morphed into a firmer sense of civic entitlement. The opposition has banded into various squabbling organizational committees; it has learned how to handle negotiations with the mayor’s office; how to raise money for sound equipment; how to give people a say in the lineup of who will address them at the protest; and how to better harness social networks into disseminating information. Contrary to the near universal expectation that this amorphous and motley crew would fracture and do itself in by squabbling, the diverse movement has surprised everyone, including itself, with its growing sophistication.

Part of the reason is that it has also tasted success. In the two weeks since Bolotnaya, the government response has gone from messy and panicked to largely symbolic gestures — tossing the infamously crass Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov under the bus and handing some parliamentary committee chairmanships to the “loyal opposition” — to the beginnings of something that’s starting to look like actual concessions and, more shockingly, real change.

In his four-hour live question and answer session on Dec. 16, Vladimir Putin floated the idea that Russia may see a return of elected governors, though a strange device called a “presidential filter.” (Gubernatorial elections, done away with in 2004 under the pretext of fighting terrorism, have been the signature of Putin’s centralized — and now wobbling — political system.) This week, Dmitry Medvedev, still formally president, delivered his final state of the nation address to the country’s political elite. He laid out plans for political reform, including the direct election of governors, something that would begin to address the deafness, inflexibility, and ineffectiveness of Putin’s power vertical. “People are tired of having their interests ignored,” Medvedev said. “I hear those who talk about the need for change and understand them.”

Today, while however many tens of thousands stood around on Sakharov Avenue — a protest echoed in dozens of cities around the country — Sergei Naryshkin, until recently the president’s chief of staff and now the new Duma speaker, went on television to suggest that maybe they didn’t need a “presidential filter” after all, that maybe political parties’ own selection process was enough.

Even the official rhetoric has begun to shift away from insinuations of American provocation and Putin’s swat at demonstrators that their white protest ribbons reminded him of limp condoms. Today’s statements from top United Russia officials steered clear of insulting the crowd, choosing instead to focus on their leaders, and to hint that, maybe, they had come out not to get State Department money, but because they had legitimate grievances. “It’s obvious that there is a huge chasm between those Russian citizens who came out to protest, and those who address them from the stage,” said United Russia deputy Irina Yarova, in a press release sent around by the party on Saturday afternoon. The participants, according to Yarova, are “simple” and “sincere” — a far cry from Putin’s assertion that they had come out in exchange for money. Alexander Khinshtein, another United Russia deputy, spun it a different way. “I think that the existence of the opposition is testament to the health of the country,” he said, pointing to the “ripeness of our political system.” Compare that to the pre-Bolotnaya talk of provocateurs, traitors, and other characters unworthy of direct dialogue with the state.

That is not to say that many things, many of the most important things, will be left unchanged: The deeply fraudulent parliamentary elections of Dec. 4 won’t be nullified and held anew; Vladimir Churov — the odd and flamboyantly partisan “magician” in charge of the Central Election Commission — shows no signs of resigning (he’s a childhood friend of Putin); and, come March 4, unless things completely come apart, Putin will win the presidential election. He will still be the deeply conservative, change-averse, hands-on Putin; the system will still be deeply corrupt, unresponsive, and weak.

That said, there’s three months to go — and there’s still the chance, however much it shrinks with each peaceful protest protected by extremely civil police officers, that things could explode into violence and screw-tightening.

But, if the people who have been coming out despite the cold this month — 100,000, for Putin’s Russia, is still an unimaginable amount (most protests in the last decade drew no more than a brave few hundred) — don’t fall asleep on March 5 when their slim hopes are dashed by Putin’s victory, if these small victories make them hungrier rather than nauseous, if the surprise at discovering that one’s political opinions are not at all singular or marginal does not sour when the number at these protests inevitably plateaus, then Putin’s system, come 2012, will already be a very different one. It will find itself dealing with a new constituency whose wizened, suspicious regard for his maneuvers will make them harder and harder to trick, which will therefore make it more and more necessary for the system to actually deal with them, and take their concerns seriously.

And perhaps, if this new protest constituency can be trained by its experience to see small concessions as big successes, perhaps the political system and political life can finally become somewhat “normal” — the utterly subjective gold standard for Russians. “We’re setting a precedent,” said Alexei, a 25-year old computer programmer, shivering in the cold. “The reason the word ‘politics’ always had this negative connotation in Russia is because there was an understanding that we’re not going to get involved in it, especially not as decent people. We want to give the word a different connotation, so that a decent person doesn’t have to get red in the face when he says the word ‘politics.'”

Won’t Get Fooled Again [FP]

The Condom-nation of Vladimir Putin

Friday, December 16th, 2011

MOSCOW – Russians had not really seen Vladimir Putin since his ruling United Russia party was walloped, at least by Russian standards, in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Since then, Moscow, and the rest of the country, had been rocked by anti-government — and anti-Putin — protests. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people pinned white ribbons to their coats and came out across Russia to contest the elections, expressing their displeasure at being treated like idiots by the Kremlin for the past decade. Up until Thursday, the Kremlin’s reaction to this outpouring implied either panic, denial, or both. Putin remained well out of sight. He spoke through his spokesman in vague, contradictory statements, and, once, in a meeting of his People’s Front, blamed the protests on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming she had sent Russians a certain “signal.”

This self-imposed almost-silence ended today, in a four-and-half-hour telethon that marked Putin’s first real public appearance since his glitsy thermidorian system started to unravel at the edges, and in it Putin made sure to address the outrage that drew more crowds to the streets than Russia has seen since 1993. Soothing words were not what he offered. “To be perfectly honest,” he said, “when I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest — it’s not quite appropriate — but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.”

Yes, that’s right: in case Russians hadn’t been offended by years of brazen maneuvers and bland television tailor-made for the lobotomized; in case they hadn’t been insulted by the glib switcheroo of Sept.24, when Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, announced they would simply swap positions; in case the crudely falsified elections and the baton-happy police hadn’t angered enough people; Putin compared their symbol of peaceful protest, those white ribbons neatly pinned on lapels, to an unwrapped and doubled-up condom. On live TV.

The Russian Internet, not surprisingly, was quick to fire back. First to circulate was a diaphanous condom in the shape of a folded ribbon; then came Putin standing stuffily in front of a Kremlin nightscape, an unraveled condom photoshopped onto his coat. (“Happy holidays, friends!” the postcard said.) Another web parody offered a prediction: a deficit of condoms in the city on the eve of Dec. 24, the day of the next scheduled protest. Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and one of the organizers of the upcoming demonstration, even proposed a new slogan for the rally: “You’re the gondon.” In Russian, gondon is slang for condom — or asshole.

Putin hardly stopped with his condom remark. Over nearly five hours in a TV studio taking questions from his public as part of an annual ritual, he often returned to his favorite theme: Western conspiracies to weaken Russia, to “push it to the side,” or, as he characterized the wave of protests now unfolding around him, “a well-tuned scheme to destabilize societies” that “doesn’t come out of nowhere” — like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. As for the protesters, Russia’s once and would-be future president pointed out that “there are, of course, people who have the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation, but act in the interests of a foreign government using foreign money. We have to try to find common ground with them, too, even though it’s often pointless or impossible.” And then there were the mere mercenaries in those peaceful protesting crowds. Putin said he knew that there were college students who received money to come to Saturday’s 50,000-person protest — “fine, let them earn a little money” — even though the only college students reported to have received money were those populating the pro-Kremlin rallies of the last weeks. (I met one such young man, 23-year-old Mikhail, a member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group who came with his opposition-minded friends to the anti-Kremlin protest on Bolotnaya Square. He told me had been paid to show up and talk people out of their anti-Putin sentiments. His logic explained Putin’s, to some extent. “I get paid for my time,” Mikhail told me, when I asked why he thought his friends were lying when they said they didn’t get money from the U.S. State Department. “Why shouldn’t they?”)

Leaving aside the constant repetition of this trope, as well as that of the evil West (which “underestimates our nuclear rocket potential”), and evil America (which killed Qaddafi), and evil John McCain (who “has blood on his hands”), the one topic — the “red thread,” according to the host — that Putin had to keep coming back to was Saturday’s protests across Russia. He tried, as best as he could, to leave aside the issue after offering bland blanket statements about citizens’ rights to express their views, as well as backhanded comments about the opposition, which, according to Putin, “will always say that elections were unfair. Always. It’s a question of political culture.”

But it kept coming back. For a while he tried to spin the protests. “There were different kinds of people there, and I was happy to see fresh, healthy, intelligent, energetic faces of people who were actively stating their position,” he said. “If this is the result of the Putin regime, then I’m happy. I’m happy that these kinds of people are appearing.” He said this twice, echoing the loyalist television celebrity Tina Kandelaki’s statement that those who came out across the country were “Putin’s generation,” a crowd of middle-class democrats made possible by his policies. (A fine theory, if one disregards the frequency with which “Putin, resign!” rolled loudly through the crowds.)

Eventually, Putin did his best to try to dodge the issue. “For God’s sake, if it’s so interesting to you, then I’ll discuss it,” he said after the host gently steered him back to it. If it wasn’t the host, it was the questioners themselves, who seemed less scripted than in previous years. And, if they weren’t asking about the protests and the falsified elections, they were asking about the deafness and corruption of their local authorities. Putin offered some promises of reform: Direct election of governors — eliminated in 2004 — but only, as he put it, through “a presidential filter” (i.e., only those candidates vetted by the president — him — will be allowed to stand for election.) No new parliamentary elections — which, of course, would be logistically impossible — but webcams installed at polling stations at the next one.

Clearly, this was an uncomfortable new position for Putin. The live question-and-answer session, a marathon of good-tsar populism, is a longstanding tradition and is Putin’s favorite format. For ten years, he has swanned through rehearsed, tee-ball questions from his adoring populace, using the occasion to graciously solve a crisis for an elderly veteran or punish an errant regional authority. He was used to being charming, confident, wry. He was Putin. This year, he approached this sublime state only when tossing figures and percentages around like confetti — one Russian journalist called him a “random number generator.” For the most part, he was less than fluent. He stumbled. He interrupted people with jittery, flat jokes. His spin sounded less like spin, and more like the excuses of a truant caught red-handed. He was, in short, nervous.

And yet, there was little Putin could do with his nervousness aside from channel it into insults (see: condoms) and paranoia (see: foreign funds). This is a telling response, and representative of the state’s reaction to the post-election furor: some dubious concessions — like removing the infamous Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and promoting Kremlin ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov out of his position — but, on the whole, retrenchment and reliance on classic Kremlin tactics. On Tuesday, for instance, we saw the owner of the Kommersant publishing house (which publishes the most important Russian daily) fire one of his top executives and the editor of the political magazine Vlast over a photograph of a ballot on which someone had written, in red ink, “Putin, go fuck yourself!” Two other top editors resigned in protest.

The unmistakable feeling, watching all this, is that either the Kremlin knows nothing else, can think of nothing else, or is too panicked to find its thinking cap and slap it on. Asked if it was true that emergency meetings were convened in the Kremlin after the initial wave of protests, Putin said, dubiously, “I was not invited to these meetings, I don’t know. I’ll say honestly that I didn’t notice any panic.” He was, he added, busy. “I was at that time, speaking frankly, learning to play hockey,” he said, referring to himself as “a cow on ice.” “I wasn’t really paying attention to what’s going on there. And I haven’t been there [in the Kremlin] for a while, frankly speaking.”

Outside the Kremlin, however, Putin’s insult-filled telethon had the unintended effect of galvanizing an opposition that had been showing signs of fracturing. During the Putin marathon on TV, RSVPs for the December 24 rally spiked on the Facebook page dedicated to it. Users barraged it with comments about how Putin’s snide and anxious performance had pushed them over the edge.

And it’s true that Putin had nothing but contempt for them. “Come to me, Bandar-logs,” Russia’s ruler told his perhaps befuddled viewers at one point in his bizarre show. Putin was comparing the newly energized opposition to the foolish, anarchic monkeys in “The Jungle Book.” The ones who chant “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful.” (“I’ve loved Kipling since childhood,” crooned Putin.) Facebook did not take kindly to this. “What say you, Bandar-logs,” one journalist quipped. “Shall we go prowling?

The Condomnation of Vladimir Putin [FP]

Activists Get Connected

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Two years ago, Dmitry Ternovskiy, a Russian small business owner, blogger, and hobby photographer, had a dream: he is skiing, and he runs into Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The two men make each other’s acquaintance, at which point Ternovskiy asks the president for his autograph on the side of his camera lens. A week later, Ternovskiy found himself on the slopes above Sochi, where, he was told, the president also happened to be skiing. Intrigued by the coincidence, Ternovskiy made his way over to where Medvedev was passing and took a few pictures. To his even greater surprise, the president approached him, and Ternovskiy asked him to sign his camera lens. And, because things were already unfolding so bizarrely, Ternovskiy decided to take the opportunity to ask the president about something that had been bothering him for years: the pointless Soviet-era ban on photography in the Kremlin and Red Square. “Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] said this was stupid and within an hour, the news agencies were reporting that he had given the order to the head of the Federal Security Service [the Russian Secret Service] to lift this ban, which had been in place for 20 years,” Ternovskiy recalls, still marvelling at the cosmic strangeness of that day.

The run-in was not only broadcast on national television, it also provided the catalyst for a project Ternovskiy called A Country Without Stupidity. Chief among the inanities in his sights is something most tourists in Russia have encountered: the screaming security guard or elderly woman telling you that you cannot take pictures here, as if your photograph of that supermarket compromises Russian national security. Ternovskiy has used his blog to mobilise Russians to inform these guards and grannies that they are the ones in the wrong: by Russian law, photography is allowed almost everywhere. “Despite the fact that there is no legal basis to ban photography in all the places it’s banned, people will still tell you it’s forbidden,” Ternovskiy says, pouring himself a cup of thyme tea as we sit in a Moscow café. “It’s like a Soviet phantom limb. Back then, every person felt himself to be in the thick of a nest of spies, there were enemies all around, everything was banned. Unfortunately, we still see this alive and well in the minds of many people today.”

Using his blog and Twitter, Ternovskiy has declared war on this archaic mentality. In the year since he launched A Country Without Stupidity, he has taught a growing number of sympathisers what to do if a guard in a train station tells you to delete that picture you just took: call the police, have them write a report, then write an official complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office. Thanks to Medvedev’s modernisation initiative, he points out, you can now file that complaint online. “It’s very simple and it uses legal methods,” Ternovskiy explains. “You don’t have to fight anyone, you don’t have to pitch a fit and yell at the guards. Just go home, and calmly register a complaint.” To everyone’s surprise, the prosecutor’s office stopped ignoring these complaints and began answering them – and finding in the complainants’ favour.

This may seem like a strange fight, but in a country where abuse of authority and brazen shirking of the law has become an accepted part of the daily routine even in the smallest things, Ternovskiy’s battle is a novel attempt not to fall into the sort of complacency that makes this kind of grim reality possible in the first place. “It’s a small thing, yes, but Russians are so indifferent and so convinced that you can’t change anything here, that what we’re trying to show people is that sometimes you just need a little effort to change something,” Ternovskiy explains. “And then maybe the next time, when this person encounters a bigger problem, not just something stupid, he’ll know that he can act, and he’ll know how to.”

With more than 50 million users, the Russian internet has this year become Europe’s biggest internet audience and Ternovskiy’s initiative is one of several that has used the explosion of the web in Russia to do something unheard of in its history: the mobilisation of civil society. “For many years, there was no means for people living here to do anything that relates to the organisation of society in any way,” says Anton Nossik, a pioneer of the Russian web and now the media director of SUP, the company that owns LiveJournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. “In Russia, it was always the state that was in charge of dealing with social issues, never the people. It’s a situation that, on the whole, has lasted here for about a thousand years.”

The change came only recently, and only with the introduction of high-speed internet, first in the big cities, then in the countryside. Then came LiveJournal, which gave Russians a platform to discuss the things no longer being discussed in the state-controlled media. After that, the social networks – VKontakte, or Facebook for the urban elite – which Russians use more than any other people on the planet, connected like-minded citizens of a country spread across nine time zones. In the past year this trifecta – low-cost, hi-speed internet access, LiveJournal, and social networks – has given rise to a cluster of novel civic movements. One of the first was anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny’s RosPil, which used crowd sourcing to spot corrupt government tenders. Then, using Yandex.Money, the Russian analogue of PayPal, he launched an online collection of funds to hire young lawyers to help him fight corrupt state corporations in court. His goal had been to raise Rbs3m (£61,000). As of May this year he had raised Rbs6.5m. The next frontier in this movement is apps. Ternovskiy is currently working with developers to create an app that allows users to document and send a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office right from their phones. “We want people to act,” Ternovskiy says, explaining that, in the time it takes someone to come home and get in front of a computer, the desire to register an official complaint may easily pass. Another potential hit, given the talk of fraud in Russia’s recent parliamentary elections, is RUGolos, an application that allows voters to register how and where they voted. The idea is that, given the penetration of smartphones in Russia, the app can collect enough data to serve as an independent counterweight to official election results.

Blue Buckets, another online movement, uses a different currency to achieve its aims: public shame. Loosely affiliated clusters of people have united in fighting the blue migalki, or sirens, which allow any car to which they are attached to circumvent all traffic laws. Predictably, they cause countless, often deadly, accidents, and given the sanctity of the car in Russia, they have become a major social irritant. Blue Buckets – named for the blue buckets activists tape to their car roofs as a spoof of these VIP sirens – gives people the means to fight back against the abuse of privilege. Drivers who capture this abuse – the VIP vehicle of a film director speeding in the oncoming lane, a bureaucrat turning on his siren to get to the dry cleaners – on camera, can submit the picture or video to Blue Buckets, which then disseminates it to its nearly 40,000 members and hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors to its LiveJournal page. Inevitably, this makes it into the news cycle, fuelling more rage. This summer saw a spate of such small but loud scandals over migalki, and Blue Buckets was behind most of them.

“It’s the broken windows theory,” says Petr Shkumatov, one of the Blue Buckets co-ordinators, and a marketing specialist by day. “Since we’ve started the group, people have stopped being as brazen. A year ago, you saw these migalki everywhere but now they are more hesitant to turn on their discotheques,” he says, referring to the whoop of the sirens. “Of course, they’re allowed to by law, but the fact that society has become so angry at them, and they see the anger, has clearly been giving them pause.”

The point of Blue Buckets is to disincentivise ostentatious prestige, which is still so comically common in contemporary Russia. “The problem of migalki is not solved through laws because the sirens play to a very natural desire to be above other people,” says Shkumatov. He sees the legacy of the Soviet Union at play here, too, and he and his co-conspirators at Blue Buckets have tried hard to keep the group as decentralised and organic as possible, in order to prevent it from becoming “an instrument for realising someone’s ambitions”.

“The Soviet Union still exists in Russia because people are still repeating old patterns,” Shkumatov explains. “As soon as someone joins an organisation, he wants to become the general secretary of the Communist party.”

In the past few days, the Russian blogosphere has proved to be a powerful tool in organising such sentiments. A day after disputed election results delivered both a victory and a defeat to the ruling, vaguely Soviet, United Russia party – it won a majority of seats in the Russian parliament, but lost 15 per cent compared with the 2007 electio7 – some 6,000 young people took to Moscow’s streets. As in the case of protests seen around the world, from Cairo to Zucotti Park, they had been brought there by Facebook and Twitter. And they were angry about what they had read on the internet, information that rarely makes it into the “official” Russian press. In absolute terms, it was not a large number – Moscow is a city of at least 11 million – but it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom. Young Russians are thought to be apathetic and, even if they are not, rarely come out to protest, which they see as the realm of the shrill and the elderly.

The anonymous KermlinRussia duo, who write a wildly popular parody of Medvedev’s Twitter account, recently teamed up with Zhgun, a graphic designer, to create a campaign ad on YouTube for a fictional party called “F****** Amazing Russia”. The premise of the party was to leave behind the bad guys – Putin, Medvedev, and their cronies – and to mobilise what one of the KermlinRussia writers called “the party of the internet.” Hundreds of thousands of people watched the YouTube video, but nothing seemed to happen – until it suddenly did. “The internet is the new politics,” one of the duo told me. “It was able to organise the first serious protest in many years.”

Whether or not these protests continue as temperatures in Moscow drop is not clear, but they have already accomplished something very important: they have brought down the barrier between the online and offline worlds. When Navalny was arrested at the December 5 protest, thousands of his followers watched a live feed of the protest staged outside the police station where he was being held. At 4am on a weeknight, there were nearly four thousand viewers. When Navalny’s trace temporarily vanished, and when Navalny was brought into court and sentenced to 15 days in prison, it was Shkumatov who tweeted the proceedings to everyone who had not been allowed inside the courtroom: Shkumatov, too, had been arrested.

On December 10, around 50,000 of the young urban elite came out in Moscow for the biggest anti-government protest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands protested in dozens of cities around Russia. Addressing the crowd, Shkumatov thanked them for coming out, “for showing them” – the Kremlin – “that you’re not cattle”. “You guys are so wonderful!” he said, while recording a video of the crowd with his phone.

Activists Get Connected [FT]

Nine Days That Shook the Kremlin

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

MOSCOW — At around midnight on Saturday, Dec. 10, while much of Moscow had long since fallen into a collective happy, drunken swoon after some 50,000 representatives of the urban middle class successfully came out to protest the results of Russia’s Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, Ketchum, the American PR agency hired by the Kremlin, sent out a news release. It came from Dmitry Peskov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s longtime press secretary.

“What we witnessed today was a democratic protest by a section of the population who are displeased with the official results of last week’s elections,” Peskov said. “In the past few days we also witnessed demonstrations by other segments of the population who were supporting those results. We respect the point of view of the protesters, we are hearing what is being said, and we will continue to listen to them. The citizens of Russia have a right to express their point of view, in protest and in support, and those rights will continue to be secured as long as all sides do so in a lawful and peaceful manner.”

Given the scale of the Moscow protest and the demonstrations by thousands more in dozens of cities all over Russia — the largest by far since Putin came to power nearly a dozen years ago — it was a strange and strangely muted response. It was not as strange, however, as what Putin said earlier that day, also through Peskov. “The government has not yet formulated a position,” he said.

One person, however, had. On Sunday, President Dmitry Medvedev took to his page on Facebook — the nerve center of the protest’s organization — and said the following:

Under the Constitution, the citizens of Russia have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. People have a right to express their position, which is what they did yesterday. It is good that all took place within the framework of the law. I do not agree with the slogans or the statements made at rallies. Nevertheless, I have given the order to check all instances from polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections.

This was truly bizarre. What, after all, did the president of Russia — at least president until next year, when Putin proposes to swap jobs with him again — mean by it? And, odd too, not least because of the extraneous, redundant reminder that citizens have the right to freedom of speech and assembly, a right Russia’s rulers have not often been eager to proclaim. The equally strange worry — mostly on the side of the Kremlin — that Saturday’s protest, which had been permitted by the Moscow city government, would end in bloodshed seemed to imply that everyone, including Putin and Medvedev, needed this reminder. Then there was the constant marveling (including on state-owned Channel One, which on Saturday finally acknowledged that these protests exist) that the demonstrations had happened peacefully, in accordance with the law.

Perhaps the main issue was simply one of credibility: Medvedev, already about as lame a duck as a president can be ever since Putin announced in September his plans to return to the presidency in the 2012 elections, has personally, and grandiosely, ordered many investigations into scandalous things, and none has resulted in much. (Last fall, Medvedev promised to investigate the case of journalist Oleg Kashin, who was savagely beaten. He even promised to Kashin to “tear off the heads” those responsible. “Sitting here, smoking my pipe,” Kashin joked on Facebook.) Perhaps this is why so very many of the nearly 13,000 comments on Medvedev’s Facebook post this weekend were negative. “This is called detachment from reality,” one commenter said. “You need to go see a psychiatrist.”

“The president’s response is ridiculous,” Igor Yurgens, head of a Moscow think tank closely associated with Medvedev, told me. “‘I don’t agree, but we’ll figure out.’ That’s not an answer.” So far, none of the protesters’ demands, from registering new parties to freeing those arrested in protests earlier last week, Yurgens pointed out, have been taken seriously.

Indeed, the trickle of official statements since the Saturday protests implies that the Kremlin is either stalling or brushing these demands aside. One of the protesters’ demands was that Vladimir Churov, Putin’s childhood friend and head of the Central Election Commission, be fired. He has denied well-documented election fraud and said the reams of video evidence being put forward by activists since the elections were faked by being filmed in apartments made to look like polling stations. For his services to the state, Medvedev, to his everlasting Internet shame, called Churov “a magician” last week. Yet on Sunday, the Central Election Commission shot down a proposal to consider Churov’s dismissal.

Another demand was new elections. On Friday night, the eve of the big protest, the commission certified the results. On Monday, Peskov dismissed not only the possibility of new elections but the possibility of a recount. “If we take into account this so-called evidence, then they’ll account for about 0.5 percent of the overall number of votes,” he said. “Even if, hypothetically, every single complaint is proved in court, they would still not affect the overall outcome of the vote.” Russia’s prosecutor general voiced a similar view.

And speaking of the Russian Constitution, the ruling United Russia party had a rally in Moscow on Monday called “Glory to Russia!” to celebrate Constitution Day. The party promised a crowd of 30,000 people, perhaps to prove Putin right that there were just as many happy with the elections as there were who were outraged. According to the police, 25,000 people showed up. According to various reporters on the scene — and according to photographic evidence — there were at most 2,000. Many attendees had been bused in, a common tactic. “I don’t know why the fuck I’m here,” one young man told a reporter. “It’s for television. These fucking KGB guys, they’re lying to people on television, promising everything and doing nothing. I don’t fucking need this. They canceled our classes for us to come here.”

Given the money poured into loyalist youth groups — and the money spent on busing in young bodies — Monday’s rally was an epic flop. It is also a testament to the ineffectiveness of United Russia’s stubbornly sticking by its old and less-than-convincing tactics. The staged rallies are complemented by rhetorical gymnastics, parroted up and down the United Russia food chain, that smack of denial at best. Never mind that Saturday’s were the largest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union, the line goes; they were nothing unusual. What’s 50,000 people, after all, in a city of 12 million?

Putin and Medvedev, meanwhile, are clearly trying to buy time, though in a less-than-organized fashion. “Putin is obviously stalling,” said political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who until recently worked for Medvedev and helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “Medvedev rushed to say something negative, but Putin said he’s thinking about it. I think that’s the right way to go about it. They’re frightened, and this has been good for the state because it has forced them to start thinking about its actions instead of going with the usual knee-jerk reactions.”

Pavlovsky, who has told me he is deeply disillusioned with an uncharacteristically mistake-prone Putin, also pointed to the lack of violence and chaos at Saturday’s rally. “This was maybe Putin’s first correct step this whole year,” he said of the Kremlin’s decision not to crack down on protesters the way they did on Dec. 5 and 6, arresting nearly 1,000 people in two days. “The day of [Saturday’s] protest, everything was done right from the point of view of maintaining power. If the Kremlin tried to fight it, it would now be in a deep, deaf, and probably bloody siege. Will it continue to do the right thing? — that’s the question.”

Certainly, the Kremlin has shifted its rhetoric, starting out after the first post-election rumblings with vague warnings of “provocations” and civil war, to the more recent claim that many who came out on Saturday were simply curious, one-off rubberneckers. Still, there’s a sense Russia’s rulers haven’t fully grasped the scope of the dissatisfaction they’re dealing with among a largely well-heeled, well-educated, white-collar crowd.

Some insiders clearly sense trouble. On the eve of Saturday’s protest, Vladislav Surkov, first deputy presidential chief of staff and the man who micromanages Russian politics and media, summoned a who’s who of the loyal intelligentsia to discuss unfolding events — a sign that he gets it. Yet those present at the meeting haven’t exactly been offering soothing words about compromise. Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russia Today, said dismissively that the next protest, planned for Dec. 24, will draw fewer people “because people have to go buy presents.” Maxim Shevchenko, an anchor on state-owned Channel One, in a riposte titled “Answering Fools,” said the best course is to let the opposition have its protests in order not to make martyrs of them. “They are no one and have to remain no one,” he wrote.

Still, Monday brought some evidence of compromise. United Russia announced it is ready to cede some of the leadership posts in the Duma to the parliamentary opposition. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who was fired by an irate Medvedev in September, said in an interview with the Russian business daily Vedomosti that he was ready to head up a liberal political party, presumably one catering to the largely white-collar crowd — lawyers, doctors, consultants, finance workers, graphic designers, engineers, and the like — that came out on Saturday.

Then, in a surprise and very telling twist on Monday afternoon, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov announced his intention to run for president in March 4’s election. Over the summer, he tried to run exactly the kind of party Kudrin is now suggesting, but quit in frustration as the project quickly and loudly jumped the rails, for reasons that seemed to boil down to the Kremlin’s insistent desire to control it and Surkov’s rather intensive curation of the project. At the time, Prokhorov announced that he wasn’t planning on leaving “big politics,” and his return suggests that the Kremlin has allowed him back in order to distract from Saturday’s events or to give people an option of a somewhat credible alternative. This would help defuse tension so that protests don’t further mar Putin’s one-man presidential race — which, let’s not forget, he will win — and which will allow him to campaign without further antagonizing the already antagonized white-collar crowd.

As for the white-collar crowd (“office plankton,” as they’re known in Russia), many of these newcomers to political activism are now promising to come out again in two weeks, on Christmas Eve. Most likely there will be fewer people than there were on Saturday because it will be colder, because the Kremlin will throw them some scraps, because they will lose interest, or because there’s still no one on the Russian political field who represents them. As most of them take pains to point out, this is no Arab Spring, and they are no revolutionaries, just some people who have woken up and who want into the system. “Alas, it will be a protest vote,” said one young office worker when I asked him about what new elections — should they happen — would look like. “And, unfortunately, there still won’t be anyone in the Duma who will represent my stance for the next five years. But it’s a step. It will happen in steps, and that’s OK.”

That, despite its alarmist rhetoric, is exactly what the Kremlin is banking on now. As Pavlovsky put it to me, “This doesn’t smell of revolution.”

Nine Days That Shook the Kremlin [FP]

Snow Revolution

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

It’s hard to say how many people came out to Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square today. Was it eighty-five thousand, like the protest’s organizers said? Was it twenty-five thousand, like the police said? Was it fifty thousand—the Russian media’s estimates? Whatever it was, it was definitely more than the thirty-five thousand that had R.S.V.P.’d on Facebook. The square was packed, a small pedestrian bridge studded with artificial trees hung with locks left there by lovers was packed to the point that police warned it would collapse into the river below. There were still more people on the other side. There were people in the trees. “Young man, come on down!” someone yelled. “We have a banana for you!”

The Russian word for a protest is miting—meeting—and, for once, this was the more apt word for it. There was speechifying and chanting—“Putin, resign!”—and demands for new elections, but the sound equipment didn’t have the juice to reach all those ears. And yet, people stayed, and instead of listening, they talked to each other. I chatted with a group of young Russians—who worked in finance, marketing, insurance, engineering—about who in the political landscape reflected their views. No one, it turned out, because most Russian political parties, to their minds, are fakes. A young man, a consultant, sidled up. “Excuse me, I heard you talking,” he said, the snow falling on his tweed and leather cap, “and I just want to say that today’s parties are marionettes because they know that it is more effective for them to deal with [Vladislav] Surkov”—the Kremlin’s Karl Rove—“than with the people.”

“You say [old-school liberal] Yabloko is a party of the system, but I have to disagree with you,” said yet another young man who happened to be squeezing past us. And off they went.

Throughout the gray afternoon, as the snow turned to hail and back to snow, people talked politics, and talked about them intelligently, with nuance, with substance, with facts and figures and names. It was a far cry from the conventional wisdom, often Kremlin-sponsored, of Russians’ apathy and disgust for politics. Today, it turned out that no one’s been apathetic, that everyone has been reading and watching and following. Today was just the first time that all of these people came out and discovered each other’s existence.

And for all the talk in recent days, mostly from pro-Kremlin forces, of bloodshed and chaos and violence, the protest felt more like a holiday. Women tied white ribbons—the protest’s symbol—in their hair; people carried balloons and flowers. (Some were even spotted on the dashboards of police cars in the area.) People laughed, they smiled at each other, they were polite and didn’t push and when this correspondent tried to move through the crowd, they were beyond accommodating. “The press!” one man said. “We’d carry you on our shoulders!” There were no injuries, no arrests, no disorder. Even the march of several thousand people from the protest’s old venue (on Revolution Square) was peaceful, and orderly. The police didn’t harass, they didn’t yell. They too were polite. Some smiled at the protestors, others looked shocked. They didn’t act, as they did on Tuesday, as if the protestors were their enemies. (Their work got a special report on state television, which, after ignoring the growing protests for days, finally showed the crowds, though without really saying what they were there for. State-controlled NTV finally acknowledged the protests, too—by showing live footage.)

At Monday’s protests, the organizers and the participants surprised themselves when six thousand people came out. Today, it wasn’t so much the numbers that shocked, or even the fact that thousands of people in cities all over Russia came out and voiced their anger over rudely falsified elections. It was the discovery, after a decade spent living in an atomized society, believing the worst about themselves and each other, that Russians weren’t so bad after all.

“You guys are so great!” said Petr Shkumatov from the stage. He is one of the coördinators of the Blue Buckets movement, which you can read about in David Remnick’s dispatch from Moscow, out this week in the magazine. As he spoke, he filmed the crowd with his phone. “Really! You guys are so great! Thank you so much for not staying home on your couches and drinking beer! Thank you for coming out, and showing them that you are not cattle. Thank you for coming out! You are all so wonderful!”

Photograph by Alexander Zemlianichenko, Jr/AP Photo.

Snow Revolution [TNY]

“Tomorrow, They’ll Shoot Us”

Friday, December 9th, 2011

According to a page on Facebook created for the event, some thirty-five thousand people are supposed to gather tomorrow afternoon on Moscow’s Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square to demand a re-do of Sunday’s crooked parliamentary elections and the release of people arrested in the three days of protests that followed.

If even half that number shows up tomorrow, it will be unprecedented for a regime that has become expert in disenfranchising, disincentivizing, and marginalizing anyone who disagrees with it—all without spilling much blood at home or jailing more than the occasional example victim. All it took, really, was distracting people with the trappings of Western prosperity: sushi bars, vacations abroad, cars, iPhones, and a semblance, however thin, of normalcy.

The events of the last few days have been utterly astonishing and radically different from anything Putin’s Russia has seen before: thousands of young, educated, middle class Russians who have something to lose have come out into the streets simply out of a feeling of being utterly fed up, in spite of that prosperity—and, quite probably, because of it. People who have either never cared about politics, or have been afraid to dabble in it; people who have businesses or who cannot be seen publicly engaging in opposition politics; and even people who had been complicit in cynically, opportunistically spreading the United Russia gospel—all feverishly discussing the protest, putting up white ribbons (the protest’s new symbol), and rallying their friends and family to come on Saturday. Tomorrow, we can expect to see not only the obvious faces—civil-society activists, liberally inclined journalists—but investment bankers and even bureaucrats. The spirit of the last week has been surprising and moving in a way that an objective reporter should not admit to being moved by. But even without rooting for either side, and with the full understanding that these protests may easily come to naught, one can’t help but marvel at the spontaneous, utterly organic outburst of civic feeling, and the fact that, for lack of a better term, a point of no return has very clearly been passed.

And, by the looks of things, the Kremlin is either in denial, scared, or both. Thursday, Vladimir Putin dismissed the protests, saying that they had been instigated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this after days of him and President Dmitry Medvedev pooh-poohing allegations of widespread, well-documented ballot stuffing and vote rigging. (The country’s top election official, who openly agitates for Putin and the United Russia Party, said the series of videos of electoral fraud circulating on the Internet were filmed in residential apartments fixed up to look like polling stations.)

Behind the scenes, there’s been a massive Kremlin effort to lean on the media. The liberal television project and Medvedev darling, TV Rain, has come under bureaucratic pressure for broadcasting Monday and Tuesday’s protests. (Worst of all, Medvedev unfollowed the channel on Twitter.) The F.S.B. has been pushing Pavel Durov, founder of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook and most popular social network, to block opposition sites. He refused, and today was summoned to the prosecutor general’s office. (In retaliation—and in another sign of who is manning the opposition’s barricades—opposition-minded computer whizzes have started hacking and shutting down loyalist sites, like the Web page of United Russia’s Duma faction.)

Further down the power hierarchy, the Moscow city government has spent days maneuvering to move the protest away from the symbolic Revolution Square, near the Kremlin ramparts and the site of massive protests on the eve of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. First, there was urgent plumbing work and excavation that needed to be done on the day of the protest. In the face of a public outcry, the mayor’s office backed down. The next day, there were reports of an ice theatre—“a little mouse, a frog, a little rabbit”—opening up, conveniently, on the square, also on the day of the protest. Finally, the mayor’s office thought of a better way. It offered the diffuse group of organizers the chance to move the protest to Swampy Square, and to allow all thirty thousand people to show up. This had the effect of instantly splintering the opposition, which descended into bickering and trading accusations of treason, collaborationism, and self-defeating idiocy. (The rift has been mostly patched up, with most everyone agreeing to compromise.)

All the government’s resources have kicked into panic mode, it seems. The police have leaked reports saying that the protests will be scoured for those dodging Russia’s military draft. Those arrested will also be drafted. Suddenly, Saturday has been made into a mandatory, full day of school for Moscow high schoolers. To ensure attendance, students will be given an important Russian test. (This after reports that students were forced to populate pro-United Russia protests on Tuesday instead of going to school.) Most bizarrely, the health minister has warned people to stay home lest they go to the demonstration and catch the flu.

There have also been more insidious forces at work. Twitter—the site of most of the discussion and planning—has been full of pro-Kremlin users conjuring up the spectre of bloodshed and civil war. An exceptionally well-produced YouTube clip has been released, explaining how (lots of dollars) and why (lots of oil) America goaded a vocal Libyan minority into provoking violence and imposing their views on a satisfied majority. This, tellingly, has been the exact language that United Russia officials have used publicly, as well as in conversation with me: Most people are satisfied; this is just a vicious and vocal minority that seeks to, yes, provoke bloodshed and, yes, impose its views on everyone else.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin seems to be the side threatening and provoking. Today, a memo detailing the ways to get a rise out of the opposition—to push them into the line of riot police, to push them out of public view—surfaced online. Putin’s press secretary promised organizers that anyone who showed up to Revolutionary Square, instead of Swampy Square, would be beaten so badly that their kidneys would fly off. Medvedev’s representative suggested that organizers would be held responsible for any bloodshed—you know, should there be any. Today, Kirill Schitov, a young parliamentarian in the Moscow city Duma and the man connected to this summer’s “Tear It Up for Putin” campaign, warned people reading his Twitter feed, “To those who have something to lose, do not give in to provocation and do not go to Revolutionary Square. Think.”

Perhaps because this is a generation that has not been inculcated with the fear of Homo sovieticus, and perhaps because they are, on the whole, very young—and the young, as we know, are always invincible—few seem to be falling for the bait. If anything, these attempts to stanch and divert the tide of anger, rather than doing the more difficult work of dealing with it head on, has served to galvanize—to say nothing of humoring—the people who are coming out of the woodwork and into the street tomorrow. And by all accounts, there will be a lot of them.

Photograph by Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo.

“Tomorrow, They’ll Shoot Us” [TNY]

The Decembrists

Friday, December 9th, 2011

MOSCOW – Tonight is the first night without protests here since some 6,000 young people gathered Monday night to express their frustration with the electoral fraud in Sunday’s parliamentary elections and, more broadly, the institution of Putinism. They came out again Tuesday night, where they were met by thousands of drum-beating pro-Kremlin youth activists. And again on Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested, and many of them — including anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, a political rising star since he coined the phrase “Party of Crooks and Thieves” to describe Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia — are still in jail. Moscow is filled with tens of thousands of extra Interior Ministry troops and armored personnel carriers, and the city’s skies crackle with the sound of helicopter blades.

But what’s next? In short: No one knows. Sure, the Russian blogosphere is deep into planning the next protest, scheduled in Moscow for Saturday and which, according to the Facebook group created for it, more than 30,000 people are planning to attend, and Yandex, the Russian search engine, has posted a map pinpointing the addresses and times of protests scheduled all over Russia. But, meanwhile, the Western press is scrambling to tag this phenomenon with something, anything — the “Slavic Spring,” “OccupyKremlin,” or “White Revolution” for the white ribbons organizers are handing out — to make it digestible, classifiable, understandable.

Neither the scope, nor the trajectory, nor the efficacy of the growing wave of protests is clear, and predicting, or even gauging, their success is still impossible. What is quickly becoming apparent, however, is that whatever is happening now is very real, and very different from anything that has happened in many, many years. Something, in short, has changed — essentially overnight — and there is no going back to the day before.

At least nominally, the protests are about contesting the outcome of Sunday’s elections. There is some substance to this, as each day brings more and more eyewitness accounts of electoral fraud, of carousels, of ballot stuffing, of dead souls voting. There is a sense that, were it not for such tricks, United Russia would not have gotten even the paltry 49.5 percent of the vote that the authorities claim. In Moscow, according to an exit poll by FOM, a Kremlin-friendly pollster, United Russia got 27 percent, a far cry from the national average. Moreover, the people who came out on Monday night — surprising both the Kremlin and the protest’s organizers — were people who had participated in those elections. For many of them, it was a concrete issue (feeling duped) rather than an abstract one. Perhaps this is why the numbers were so shockingly large by Moscow standards, which has up until now seen only sparse and largely radical or elderly crowds of a few hundred. (Though it should be said that protests over other tangible things, like foreign car imports or monetizing pensions, were always well populated.)

So what changed? It wasn’t simply that people were afraid to get involved and now aren’t. The axiom that people felt that it was pointless to protest was, in large part, true. For years, polls showed well over 80 percent of Russians did not believe they could influence the political process. And, for the most part, they were right, not least because people who do not participate — either because they don’t want to, or because they’re disincentivized from doing so — can have little effect. The lack of incentives to participate was important, and it was by design. So, too, was the official Kremlin line, which boiled down to this: After the chaotic and ruinous 1990s, the country needed stability and material comfort, while democracy and other such nebulous things could come at a later, unspecified time.

Ironically, the problem, at least for Putin now that he seeks to return to the presidency he first assumed on New Year’s Eve 1999, is that he did provide the promised stability and economic benefit to many people, both intentionally — by raising pensions, for example — and unintentionally, as commodity prices took off during his initial tenure as president. This flooded state coffers, lined his friends’ pockets, and at least some of it trickled down. For people who experienced the penury of the 1990s, these rivulets — small as they were compared to the billions the new Putin set of oligarchs was making — were nothing to sneeze at.

Yet it also meant this: Stability worked in ways Putin might now be paying for. As Robert Shlegel, a young Duma deputy from United Russia and commissar of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement, told me a few days ago, “We have a middle class now. It may not be as big as in Germany and France, but it exists. And the quality of the needs in towns has changed, from how to survive to how to live. They have what to eat and what to drive. The question now is how to live with dignity and justice.” That may sound like straight out of a political theory textbook, until you consider what he said when I called him on Thursday to ask about the growing protests. He recalled a conversation with a friend who said he planned on going to Saturday’s demonstration. “I said to him, ‘What is the problem? You have a job, you have an apartment, you have a car. What else do you need?'” Shlegel recounted. Why, in other words, are you suddenly violating your end of the social compact of the 2000s: You get richer and buy cars and take vacations, but leave the politics to us.

What else do you need? As could be seen at the week’s mass protests, and in the Twitter and Facebook blizzard in the days that followed, what these young, educated, urban, middle-class Russians of the Putin era need is exactly what Shlegel said they needed: dignity and justice. And not the lofty definitions of those words that one often hears in Washington. I mean something more basic: a state that trusts and respects its citizens, a state that sees its people as citizens rather than as bydlo, or cattle — as the common saying goes in Russia. When Russians describe their political system today, the phrase they most often use is ruchnoe upravlenie, or manual control — which, of course, implies an utter lack of both those things.

So we are right back to Russia’s historical problem, one that bedeviled both tsars and communist commissars before Putin: What to do with a liberal, educated, well-traveled elite that orients itself toward Europe and its democratic traditions — but that is an elite nonetheless, separated from the rest of Russia by a massive chasm in outlook and upbringing as well as aspirations? We’ve seen this story before, and, inevitably, the conflict does not end well for those involved. (See, for example: the 1825 revolt of the Decembrists, the 1917 October Revolution, the 1956 “thaw” of Nikita Khrushchev, and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.)

The people who came out to protest here this week were the representatives of this elite. It’s no coincidence that the center of organization for these protests is Twitter and Facebook, two platforms used almost exclusively in Russia by that very refined, and removed, slice of society. They’ve done well in the last decade, but they’ve also become increasingly fed up with being lumped with, for lack of a better term, the cattle. A breaking point seemed to come on September 24, when Putin announced the grand swap: His plan to switch places and resume the presidency while have his puppet successor, Dmitri Medvedev, take his job as prime minister. “September 24 was the signal,” says Igor Yurgens, head of the INSOR think tank, once see as Medvedev’s brain trust. “The feeling was, they can’t do this. Six, most likely 12 years with no discussions, no consultations. Even the Communist Party, when they picked the general secretary, even though it was totally clear that they would install whomever they wanted, there were still party meetings across the whole country. Even with the understanding that they’d get their person, they still worked on building consensus. Here, in one day, two people — but most probably one person — decided the next decade without anyone else.”

The response to this moved quickly. First, there were anguished calculations of how old people would be when Putin finally left the presidential throne, then numerous incidents of booing United Russia and even Putin himself, and, finally, the protests of the last week. The slogans were less about United Russia, and the farce of the elections hardly got a mention on Monday night. The main target was Putin and the brazen cronyism — and brazen brazenness — of his system. “Russia without Putin!” shouted the crowds. “Putin is a thief!”

This is also why people who had never voted before, or hadn’t voted in many, many years, went to cast a ballot this time around. The results, despite the forgeries and the trickery, at least accurately reflected in some way United Russia’s sinking poll numbers, and this seemed to have been the push the class of the fed-up needed: it showed them that if you go out and participate, even in a crooked system, something, even something small, can come of it. (The results, by the way, were very deeply telling when broken down by region. For example, among the areas that really swept United Russia back into power were the republics of the North Caucasus; areas, plagued by an Islamic insurgency, that are flooded with Kremlin cash -places where money for loyalty still seems to work.)

The other question, of course, is what will come of this unrest. The official response, despite Putin’s admissions of “losses” and vague promises of new reforms, so far, has been more of the same. It didn’t help when Medvedev and Putin proved dismissive of reports of electoral fraud, or that the top election official in the country, the openly partisan Vladimir Churov, flat-out denied electoral fraud and darkly accused the opposition of working for “dollars.”

On Thursday, Medvedev was finally pressed into calling for a full report to investigate electoral violations, but we’ve seen all too well how his personally demanded reports work out: the report, for example, that he ordered into the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in police custody resulted in Magnitsky himself being named as a party to the fraud he was trying to investigate when he was arrested, and in medals for the police officers who, quite likely, killed him. And what did Putin say about the electoral losses suffered by the party created to support him? “Putin has never been directly connected with the United Russia party since he is regarded as an independent politician,” his press secretary told the BBC.

And the protests? Putin acknowledged them on Thursday, which, given the fact that his television stations haven’t, means they’re actually important. “While going by the vast majority of our citizens, we need to have a dialogue with those who are oppositionally minded, give them the opportunity to speak their minds, giving them their constitutional right to protest, to formulate their opinions,” he said at a meeting of his People’s Front. But Putin also reminded people not to be naïve and hinted, as he has in the last two weeks, at shadowy connections to the West. “When you’re talking about people who leave for America, and get some training there, get some money, acquire some equipment, and then come back here and spend their time being provocateurs, dragging people out into the streets,” he said, “even these people cannot be measured with a single yardstick.”

It was a clear rebuke to two parties. One of them was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had expressed her concern with the way Sunday’s elections had gone down. This, Putin said, was “a signal” to the opposition — a fifth column, in Putin’s KGB-minted mind. “They heard the signal, and with the support of the U.S. State Department, began active work.”

The other swipe was at the very people that Putin proposed talking to: the opposition not lucky enough to win seats in the Duma. There is, for example, former prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who spent time teaching in the United States. And Navalny, who did a six-month fellowship at Yale. This is a standard Putin bogeyman, an easy way to deflect blame and to discredit whomever he’s up against. As for dialogue, Putin certainly didn’t have in mind negotiating with opposition figures like Nemtsov and Navalny. “He means the parliamentary opposition,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who, until recently, worked for Medvedev, and helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “He has never taken people like Nemtsov and Navalny seriously. He sees them as nihilists and anarchists. He’s mistaken about them, of course, but there really is no consolidated opposition and there really is no one for him to talk to.”

And that, unfortunately, is true. The protesters, as massive as Saturday’s gathering promises to be, are still a diffuse group with no formulated demands. What do they want? A vote recount? A new election? Putin’s ouster? Good luck. Tonight, in a compromise with the Moscow city government, the protest was moved to a different location, which caused a minor war among the opposition, which in recent days, has been remarkably unified. This kind of squabbling over tactics, and whether or not to compromise with the authorities, will severely hobble the movement, too.

So far, the Kremlin has been buying time — keeping the protests off television, leaning on liberal media (like RainTV) and social networks to cut off oxygen to the protests, dismissing them as a vocal minority trying to impose its view on a majority happy with its apartments and cars. But Saturday promises to be the day when both the opposition’s approach and demands, as well as the Kremlin’s response crystallizes.

“I suspect the situation will be very serious on Saturday,” says Yurgens. “If the Kremlin has enough brains to enter into discussions, to form a coalition government, to fire the current government before the elections, there’s a chance. But if they just carry on as if nothing happened, we can expect rough times ahead.” Gennady Gudkov, an outspoken Duma deputy with the Just Russia party, agreed. “If they carry on like nothing happened, if there’s one more election like this, there won’t be a country anymore,” he says. “If the government doesn’t react, the protests won’t go away. They’ll simply take another form, and it will boomerang back to the Kremlin.”

As for the opposition, things are also unclear. Even if Saturday is a success, what next? What are its demands? And how long can this wave of protests keep going, and to what end? So far, no one, not even those leading the protest, knows.

Originally, Saturday’s big event was supposed to take place, fittingly, on Revolution Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin. For the past week, there have been orange and yellow banners there celebrating the 70th anniversary of the defense of Moscow. It is a strange anniversary to mark, and, in the absence of any unifying ideology, World War II has been a standard theme to harp on in Putin’s time. But it’s worth noting that the defense of Moscow worked mostly because a harsh winter literally froze the Nazi machine in its tracks. So far, Moscow has had a rather mild winter, with sunny skies and temperatures hovering above freezing. Should they dip, it may make protesting under the Kremlin’s walls much more difficult. Tahrir Square, after all, had the benefit of a Mediterranean clime.

Gudkov, the rabblerousing Duma deputy, doesn’t agree. “I don’t think people will be scared of the cold,” he told me. “Cold has never stopped people here. Look at the October revolution, the February revolution. When did the Decembrists come out? Whenever it gets cold in Russia, it only heightens people’s activity. I wouldn’t play around with that.”

The Decembrists FP]

Putin’s Big Mistake?

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Well, they’ve finally done it. Last night, after some six thousand people came out in central Moscow to protest suspected fraud in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, authorities rounded up three hundred people. Among them was Alexey Navalny, a popular anti-corruption activist and blogger. (I profiled Navalny for The New Yorker in April, and wrote about the alleged election fraud on Monday.).

The problem for Putin’s government is that, unlike the other two hundred and ninety-nine or so people arrested, Navalny is as close to a real celebrity as the Russian opposition has. He is also the one coherent, galvanizing, and viable figure among them. Despite his flirtations with nationalists, he is a brilliant political tactician and ad man: within three months of his coining the meme “party of crooks and thieves” to describe the ruling United Russia, one third of Russians polled said they identified United Russia as crooks and, yes, thieves.

No one among the opposition has been able to pull off the kinds of carefully calibrated victories Navalny can, and he has never been shy about his desire for power, which is why the Kremlin has been warily dismissive of him. Last week, when I asked Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, about Navalny as a possible pretender to the presidential throne, Peskov took the standard, vaguely neo-Soviet line: invoking spies and illicit cash. “I have a strong suspicion that he is earning money,” Peskov said. “It’s not about politics, it’s about money. I know for sure that a group of very talented lawyers are working behind him”—last winter, Navalny took up a collection to hire young lawyers to help him challenge corrupt state companies in court—“and supplying him with information and instruction. I know for sure that these specialists are working not only in this country but in some other countries, also. So, he has nothing to do with politics. It’s business. It’s like advertising on the Internet: another way of doing business.”

But if the Kremlin’s goal was to discredit Navalny and hobble his meteoric rise, they’ve done the opposite. Last night, hundreds of people protested through the night in front of one of the police precincts where, it was rumored, he was being held—trying to force the police to let his lawyer in to see him. At four A.M., nearly four thousand people were watching a live-stream video from the protest, which a supporter was beaming from the police station. In the meantime, Navalny tweeted cheery pictures from the police van and the holding pen, at least until his phone died or the police took it away. A video appeared of him in his cell, penning an official complaint—his favorite tactic.

All day Tuesday, when his tweets went silent, Russian Twitter was filled with conversations about Navalny’s whereabouts: Where was he being held? Where was his court hearing? No one, not even Navalny’s lawyer, seemed to know. Others wondered if he had been harmed, or worse. When he finally appeared in court, a picture was tweeted out with the message, “he’s alive!” This only fueled the euphoric panic that has filled the city in the last few days, and added to the (very accurate) sense that the state was cracking down and reverting to its old ways when faced with something new. Tuesday morning, armored vehicles rolled into Moscow, and the Interior Ministry confirmed that it had dispatched fifty thousand additional cops and eleven thousand five hundred Interior Ministry troops to provide “additional security” until the ballot count was completed.

Tonight, United Russia and the opposition are staging competing protests (the site of the latter has already been equipped with water cannons), and Russians (and Twitter) wait for Navalny’s verdict at the hands of a judge famous for jailing other opposition figures. Navalny’s cellmate, another young opposition politician named Ilya Yashin, was given fifteen days in prison, and Navalny could stand to get the same.

But even if the judge avoids adding fuel to the fire and delivers the verdict after Tuesday night’s protests have ended—or even if she lets him go—the damage has already been done. As Alexei Venediktov, the head of the Echo Moskvy radio station put it, arresting Navalny was “a political mistake: jailing Navalny transforms him from an online leader into an offline one.” Serving time in jail and publicly suffering at the hands of an unpopular state is any opposition leader’s dream, Venediktov wrote. “Historically, such political mistakes prove costly to those who commit them. Not right away, but inevitably. Alas.”

UPDATE: At around 7 P.M., Navalny was given the maximum sentence: fifteen days for defying a government official. He plans to appeal the verdict.

Putin’s Big Mistake? [TNY]

Russian Elections: Faking It

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Things at polling station #2390, an old school in Yasenevo, a sleepy bedroom community bristling with high rises on the far southwestern fringe of Moscow, finally got interesting long after the ladies in aprons folded up the snack bar and the voters had wandered home through the rain and the dark. That was when five members of the local election commission—all teachers and administrators at the school—began to count the ballots cast that day in the country’s parliamentary elections.

It had been a tense couple of months going into the vote. The ruling United Russia party, created in 2001 to support Vladimir Putin, who was then the President and is now Prime Minister, had been steadily, swiftly sinking in the polls; Putin, despite his high approval ratings, was being publicly booed. After he and Dmitry Medvedev announced, in September, that they would trade places, giving the Presidency back to Putin, people seemed to be in a sour mood—a mood to protest and do what Russians, especially the educated and cosmopolitan among them, never do: vote. In response, the Kremlin appeared to panic, and cracked down, harassing election monitors. On election day itself, there were denial-of-service attacks on prominent media outlets and on LiveJournal, the country’s most important blogging platform.

With that behind them, and the voters gone, Yasenevo’s electoral commissioners and observers—representatives sent by the various parties to monitor the vote, as well as this correspondent—got to work.

First, the commissioners counted and recounted the unused ballots and wrapped them up in brown paper. And that’s when all friendliness and camaraderie between the commission and the observers went out the door, and all the tension of the election season bubbled out. One of the commissioners at precinct #2390, Valentina Remezova, a blonde woman in her fifties, was offended by the very idea of observers: she clasped her hands to her chest and exclaimed, “I don’t understand this. I feel like I’ve committed a crime!” It was something she would repeat later, with tears in her voice, when the observers and I tried to get close to the table where the paper ballots were dumped from the white plastic ballot boxes. “Where does this distrust come from?” she said. “You’re making me feel like a criminal. All day you’ve been doing this!”

“Why are you taking this so personally?” said Julia Dobrokhotova, an observer from the liberal Yabloko party, who lives next door to the school (she is also a friend of mine). “We’re just here to see that everything is done properly. It has nothing to do with you!”

I tried to photograph the proceedings—something that, by Russian law, I am allowed to do. “You cannot photograph here,” said Alexei Kachubei, a slight man with a slight lisp, and the head of the election commission as well as the school principal. When Dobrokhotova pointed out that I was, in fact, allowed to, he said that I couldn’t photograph faces. Next he said I could photograph but not make a video recording. Then I couldn’t photograph at all; I had to stand twenty meters from the table, which would have put me outside the room. He called in one of the policemen overseeing the elections, a young man with a bleary, red face and dim eyes.

“You cannot photograph the ballots,” he told me when I explained that I had abided by the commission head’s request not to photograph faces. “They are a state secret.”

This unleashed an argument among the observers, at which point another commission member, a man in jeans and a gray sweater with friendly snowflakes stretched across his belly, decided to put an end to the argument.

“You shut up,” he barked. “Yabloko was created with American money!”

When I asked him for his name, he snorted. “Not likely! Especially to an American.” (I was born in Russia, but am an American citizen.) Then he covered the official (and stamped) name tag was wearing. Later, it disappeared altogether. He was, it turns out, a veteran of the Russian foreign-intelligence service.

“This is why you left Russia,” another fifty-something commission member said. “Because we do things by the rules and you people don’t like that.” She was writing down the details of my passport and Foreign Ministry press-accreditation card out at a desk in the hallway—a good way to remove me from the ballot-counting room.

When I was in the room, though, and even when confined to a desk, I could see the neat stacks of ballots, perfectly and evenly folded, that slipped out from between the sea of ballots spilling out of each box as it was cracked open. (I presume this is why no photographs were wanted.) Despite my frantic pointing, observers missed the first batch, quickly spread around by the commission members’ able hands, but they appeared, unmistakably and suspiciously neat, in each subsequent ballot box.

“Stop! Stop!” Dobrokhotova yelled. “Stop counting! These are stuffed!”

The one person able to stop the flurry of hands smoothing out the pile was a bewigged and less than lucid seventy-one-year-old Yevgenia Leneva, a commission and Communist Party member. Leneva grabbed the perfect pack and yelled, “Look at this stack!” As the observers and the commission screamed at each other, she carefully unfolded the ballots, and said, “They’re all for United Russia! Of course! Who else stuffs the ballot boxes?”

Kachubei, the commission chair, grabbed part of the stack out of her hand. The young policeman took care of the rest: as Leneva screeched, he attacked, wrenching the ballots out of her hand, and leaving a long bruise on her papery arm. When the deputy head of the local police precinct arrived (he had been called to deal with me, not voter fraud), Leneva made sure to complain about her bruised arm. The colonel was unmoved—hadn’t Leneva overstepped her authority?—and one of the women on the commission made sure to chime in, “Oh, come on. You told us yesterday your arm hurt!”

In the end, Yasenevo’s election precinct #2390 voted roughly the way Russia did: seven hundred and twenty-one ballots, or fifty-one per cent, for United Russia, the rest scattered among the Communists, the left-leaning Just Cause Party, and the nationalist L.D.P.R. United Russia’s national average was forty-nine per cent, which, while still a plurality and largely in line with national polls, was a far cry from the two-thirds of the vote they got in the last parliamentary elections, in 2007. It was also far higher than what the party managed in many regions, including the Moscow region: thirty-three per cent. And if you could somehow subtract the violations and antics and perfect ballot stacks I saw in Yasenevo, the numbers would doubtless be lower.

What was notable, however, was the level of anger in the Yasenevo election commission—the sneering, the barking; the scoffing, yelling, and smirking. I left the precinct with shaking hands. Julia Dobrokhotova, my friend and the mother of two small children, was forced to wait until two in the morning to file her report. She told me she spent the next day crying.

Dobrokhotova recounted her conversations with the commission after I left. There was the tall young man from the municipal government who had seated Dobrokhotova behind a tall plant when the voting started that morning and hissed at her not to move. (She later wondered if that was when ballot boxes had been stuffed.) In the early morning hours, after the ballots had been counted and the yelling had died down, he gave Dobrokhotova a surprising appraisal of his country. “He told me that Russia has only ever been good at two things: fighting off invaders and surviving famine,” Dobrokhotova recalled. “Nothing else.” The tubby police boss? “He said to me, ‘Julia, why are you so upset? This is a slave-owning society, and it’s like that in most countries in the world, except for two or three. It’s not our fate to be one of them.’ ” The man in the snowflake sweater told her that she should reconsider sending her children to the school, as he could make their lives miserable. And the shrill women? “They said, ‘Julia, what’s the alternative? Man the barricades?’ ”

The next night, Dobrokhotova’s brother, Roman, did just that. The head of a tiny political youth movement, “We,” he was one of the organizers of a protest in central Moscow, which, to everyone’s surprise, drew some six thousand people—almost all of them young, educated, and angry. They saw a different generation—that of the election commission in Yasenevo—lying to them and manipulating their elections and treating them like fools. Something about this election, the cynicism and ham-fistedness with which it was carried out, the euphoria when, despite the apparent fraud, United Russia failed to get even fifty per cent, made the barricades an attractive option for a cohort that has long been written off as politically inactive.

Opposition protests in Moscow rarely draw more than a couple hundred people, most of them elderly Soviet dissidents, their dreams dashed and irrelevant. Monday night, a large, wooded square in central Moscow—Chistye Prudy—was too small to hold the young, energetic crowd. They hung on fences; they lined the streets and blocked traffic. And when the riot police attacked, they weren’t scared: They were fed up. Or, as a thirty-five-year-old voter at Yasenevo’s polling station #2390 told me after he cast his ballot for Just Russia, the first time he had been to the polls since the nineteen-nineties, “Maybe people once believed that you can’t do everything right away, that you need more time to develop democracy, to pass reforms. But how much time do you need? A hundred years?”

Russian Elections: Faking It [TNY]

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

On Sunday, Nov. 27, when Vladimir Putin accepted United Russia’s nomination to be its presidential candidate, he mentioned something in his acceptance speech that seemed to come out of left field. “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money — so-called ‘grantees’ — whom they instruct, find them ‘suitable work’ in order to influence the result of the election campaign in our country,” he said, adding that “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” It was old-school, West-bashing, Cold War-invoking Putin at his best.

It was also, it turns out, very carefully aimed. Over the weekend, as United Russia waved its flags and cheered its leader, two journalists from state-controlled television station NTV showed up at the offices of Golos (“Voice” or “Vote”), the only Russian NGO with the means and credibility to monitor elections. The uninvited film crew came to sit in on a training session for volunteers and, according to Golos’s accounts, made quite the entrance. They watched a Golos training video and interviewed the organization’s director, Lilia Shibanova (as she told me, “aggressively”), asking her about her organization’s connection to the CIA.

The next day, the same journalists arrived to find Grigory Melkonyants, Golos’s deputy director. They stuck a camera in his face and started yelling at him about the etiology of his salary (the United States, naturally) and alleging that Golos was attempting to disrupt Sunday, Dec. 4’s parliamentary elections. The resultant video, recorded on Melkonyants’s phone, quickly went viral when it made it onto the web a couple of days later. It shows the two screaming at each other: NTV insinuating sordid connections to shadowy Western organizations, Melkonyants repeating over and over and over again: “You are Surkov’s propaganda.” (He was referring to Vladislav Surkov, the architect of the power vertical, creator of United Russia and Nashi, and a man who makes Karl Rove look like a professional dilettante.) The repetition of the phrase — 84 times in all — was designed to make the footage unusable for the kind of hatchet pieces NTV airs on figures who suddenly fall from official grace.

The half-hour film segment, called “Voice Out of Nowhere,” finally made it onto the air Friday, but not before three Duma deputies wrote a letter to Russia’s prosecutor general, alleging that Golos’s newspaper breaks the law by “giving direct assessments of the progress of the election campaign in our country.” Furthermore, the organization, the deputies allege, is merely a shell organization for the U.S. Congress and State Department to influence internal Russian politics. The deputies’ demand? Shut Golos down.

A statement by Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission and loyal Putin defender, followed, claiming that Golos was waging a campaign against United Russia. There was the sudden removal of a banner on Wednesday from the liberal Internet newspaper advertising its joint project with Golos: an interactive map tracking all election law violations submitted by users. (Asked whether had been pressured to remove this banner, Editor in Chief Mikhail Kotov only said, “I’d rather leave this without comment.”) Then, Friday, in a hastily scheduled court hearing and verdict, Golos was found guilty, during just one morning session, of abusing media privileges — and ordered to pay a roughly $1,000 fine.

Golos, which, with its vast network of volunteers carpeting Russia, has been an invaluable resource to journalists covering Russian elections, has never denied that it receives foreign funding. “We survive on foreign grants because the government will never finance the kind of work we do,” Shibanova told me this week. “But the money does not influence our results.” She readily listed the mosaic of grants, large and small, that make up Golos’s roughly $2.5 million election-year budget: the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Democratic Institute, British and Scandinavian embassies, the European Commission. Nor does she deny that Golos observers often pose as journalists in order to get into the polling stations, something she says is impossible to avoid after the passage of a law, in 2005, banning all election monitors except those sent by the parties themselves, or journalists. “Of course we pose as journalists!” Shibanova said. “What else can we do if you ban any public observers and allow in only representatives from the parties themselves?”

This is not the first time election observers have faced trouble in Russia — European monitors generally have a difficult time getting accredited to cover Russian elections, and this year was no exception — but the scale of the attack on Golos is unprecedented. It also fits into the context of an increasingly brazen campaign in which government officials and offices — like Churov’s Central Election Commission — openly and unapologetically use their positions to campaign for United Russia. Or in which United Russia officials openly promise voters money directly proportional to election results. It is rather odd, for instance, that Churov steps in so openly for just one party — United Russia — which clearly has the lion’s share of the advantage, as well as the financial, administrative, and media resources of the state, essentially, at its behest. “Before, they at least tried to hide this,” says political analyst Maria Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Now, not only are they not hiding the fact that they’re waging electoral campaigns from their desks and offices inside the government — they’re showing it off.”

But heading into Sunday’s vote, the Kremlin isn’t just showing off its political will, administrative might, or even hubris and blunt honesty about what the process really is; it’s also flaunting, albeit inadvertently, a fear of what that vote on Sunday might reveal. How else can one explain an otherwise sophisticated, cleverly nuanced system — Surkov, unlike Rove, fetishizes the post-modern — suddenly falling back on the crassest of methods? How else can one explain the explicit directive given to the foreign-news translation service within the state RIA news agency not to publish pieces critical of Putin and United Russia ahead of the elections? What happened to the state media system’s brilliant shortcut of self-censorship? And what to make of the sudden prominence given to Western spooks, in Putin’s speech, in the official letters to the prosecutor’s office, and in nearly identical language? (“We have special services, and we have all the data about NGOs’ being sponsored by foreign states,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary told me. “We have all the information, let’s say, about some recommendations coming from the foreign states. Already we know NGOs that will start shouting on the 5th of December” — the day after the elections — “that these elections are not legitimate without paying any respect to the results.”)

On Friday, still-president Dmitry Medvedev issued an appeal to his subjects. “How long will it take you to go and vote?” he asked. “Half an hour? An hour? But this hour will determine what kind of parliament the country will live with for five whole years.” Will it be a parliament “torn apart by constant contradiction, unable to solve anything, as we’ve already seen in our history?” Medvedev asked, invoking the old bogeyman of the 1990s. Or will it be a parliament where “the majority will be responsible politicians [read: United Russia deputies] who can actually improve the quality of life?”

Whatever kind of parliament the Kremlin gets on Sunday, Surkov will find a way to work with it or around it. But, given the public rumblings of the last two months as well as the Kremlin’s crass response, it seems that the Kremlin is increasingly uncertain about how its citizens will spend that hour.

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style [FP]